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Backlogged justice system can’t return to pre-pandemic ways, chief justice warns

Justice system players reassessing what they do, how, and how effectively they meet people’s needs
Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Wagner speaks during a welcoming ceremony, Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Canada’s chief justice says the legal system must continue to modernize and innovate, warning it cannot return to pre-pandemic ways of doing business.

The Supreme Court of Canada’s Richard Wagner told a news conference Thursday that all players in the justice system are reassessing what they do, how they do it, and how effectively they meet the needs of the people they serve.

Wagner insists access to justice is not just a fundamental right or a service, but above all a basic human need and an essential ingredient of democracy.

He acknowledges meeting the expectation of timely justice is a big task, especially with so many courts facing backlogs and delays.

Wagner says this is why a committee on court operations in response to COVID-19 continues to meet even as the pandemic eases.

The committee recently drafted a document for judges and court administrators with practical suggestions to deal with matters faster and more effectively.

The Supreme Court began holding hearings via video conference, as well as hybrid sessions, in 2020 to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Other courts across the country also moved to quickly adapt, allowing use of audio and video technology for hearings as well as more digital documents.

Wagner said last year the Supreme Court would continue to hold virtual hearings beyond the COVID-19 pandemic if participants agree to them.

“Now, we actively encourage remote hearings.”

The technology levels the playing field for all, giving parties the option to make their case from wherever they choose and offering substantial savings — especially to those farthest from Ottawa, he said.

This improves access to justice, especially for interveners such as public interest groups that present the court with additional context and perspectives on challenging legal issues, Wagner added.

“Truly, it does not matter if counsel is standing before them or appearing on screen. Strong, well-reasoned and persuasive arguments can be made from anywhere.”

The courts have a primary role to play in implementing the values of the rule of law and democratic institutions, Wagner said.

“However, even in Canada, nothing is certain. I strive to remind you that we must constantly remain vigilant, knowing that attacks and violations in this regard are sometimes insidious and reactions too late, if there is a reaction.”

—Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press

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